2 doctors used typhus to save thousands in wartime

The AMA honored a physician who created a fake epidemic that spared many of his Polish countrymen from German labor and death camps.

By — Posted July 5, 2004

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Chicago -- Eugene Lazowski, MD, spent three years of his life with a cyanide pill at the ready. Better to take his own life than to die at the hands of the Germans if they discovered he was saving the lives of fellow Polish villagers during World War II.

"I was afraid, but I controlled it," Dr. Lazowski said.

The Polish doctor and a colleague hatched a plan to inject healthy villagers with a killed strain of typhus bacteria, which made residents test positive for typhus. Germans, who occupied Poland at the time, feared infection and an outbreak among soldiers, so they quarantined 12 villages instead of shipping villagers to German labor or death camps.

Over three years, the fake typhus epidemic saved about 8,000 villagers from camps where scores of their countrymen would die.

"People said I'm a hero. I just found an opportunity to do something good," said Dr. Lazowski, 90, a humble man who appears frail with his shuffling walk but still commands a firm handshake. He was honored for his efforts by the AMA Senior Physicians Group at a luncheon during the AMA Annual Meeting in Chicago in June.

During World War II, Dr. Lazowski was a young physician living in Rozwadow, Poland. The Germans rounded up Polish men and women and sent them to slave labor camps while Jews were deported to death camps.

Dr. Lazowski sought a way to fight back. A fellow doctor, Stanislaw Matulewicz, MD, discovered that, if a healthy person was injected with a killed strain of typhus bacteria, that person would test positive for typhus. It was the weapon they would use to scare the Germans into quarantining Polish villages.

"I would not fight with swords and guns, but with intelligence and courage," Dr. Lazowski said.

A secret epidemic to fool the enemy

They told no one of their plan to create a fake epidemic -- not even their wives.

They started slowly, injecting small numbers of people who showed signs of other illnesses. The blood samples were sent to German labs. Over time, the scheme grew, and the Germans began quarantining some areas.

"He knew the Germans were terrified of typhus," said Illinois producer Ryan Bank, who is making a documentary and a feature film about Dr. Lazowski, who also was a doctor in the Polish army.

At one point, the Germans became suspicious and sent a team of doctors to check the epidemic.

A friend helped Dr. Lazowski distract the Germans by giving them food and drink one night, and the senior doctors decided to enjoy the revelry and sent their younger colleagues to investigate. But the younger doctors were afraid of typhus and only took blood samples before hurriedly leaving.

During the war, Dr. Lazowski took other chances to save lives. He lived next to a Jewish ghetto in Rozwadow and arranged for Jewish people to hang a cloth on his back fence when they needed medical treatment. Dr. Lazowski would sneak through the fence and secretly treat them.

Near the end of the war, a German soldier who had been treated by Dr. Lazowski warned the doctor that the Germans were on to his typhus scheme and planned to kill him. The doctor escaped with his wife and daughter, and as he looked back, he saw the same soldier shooting women and children in the village.

Dr. Lazowski and his family lived with relatives, then settled in Warsaw as the German occupation ended. Later, they moved to the United States, where Dr. Lazowski worked as a pediatrician. He and Dr. Matulewicz wrote an article about the typhus hoax, and Dr. Lazowski authored a Polish book on his experiences. Today, Dr. Lazowski lives with family in Eugene, Ore.

A few years ago, the two doctors visited Poland, where they received a hero's welcome and were reunited with past patients. Dr. Lazowski remembers one man telling the doctor that he cured his father of typhus in five days.

"It was not real typhus," Dr. Lazowski said with a grin. "It was my typhus."

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